Is It Bad to Read In the Car? Yes and No

Many of us have been told dozens of times not to read in the car, but there are only so many options for passing the time while traveling. Is it really bad to read in the car? According to Dr. Michael G. Stewart (otorhinolaryngology), the answer is no, “Reading in the car is not really bad for your health, although it can make you feel bad.” A significant number of people find that they feel unwell when they read in the car, and primarily two phenomena are behind their discomfort—motion sickness or eye strain.

No studies have shown a correlation between riding as a passenger and health concerns; so if it doesn’t bother you, go ahead. However, you should keep in mind that it is extremely dangerous to read while driving, even if it’s just looking at a map for directions. Statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration highlight the danger—performing visual-manual tasks (which includes reading from a mobile device) increases the risk of a vehicle accident by three times. If you need to look up directions while driving, bring someone along or pull over.

Why You Feel Sick in the Car

If you are a passenger, motion sickness, or car sickness, is probably the most common consideration when determining whether you should read in the car. However, you’ll be happy to know that picking up your favorite magazine during a trip will not cause you any long-term harm. Motion sickness is a temporary state caused by your body’s inability to cope with certain sensory input. The most common symptoms include:

  • Queasiness
  • Cold sweats
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

Your senses all work together to tell your brain about your location. In particular, your inner ear system is highly tuned to your body’s movements. Usually, your eyes and your inner ear tell your brain the same story, but when the details don’t match up, you can experience the symptoms of motion sickness.

Take reading in the car, for example. Your eyes are focused on a page with static words at a fixed distance from your face. The eyes are telling your brain that your body is staying still. Your inner ear, on the other hand, detects the motion of the vehicle you are riding in, and it sends your brain a very different story. When this confusion happens, you may start to feel the symptoms listed above.

If you'd like more information about why you develop motion sickness from reading in the car, this informational video breaks it down.

Some people, however, experience motion sickness even if they are not reading in the car. If you are one of those people who already gets sick from simply riding in the car, reading will only amplify your symptoms. It’s best to find a solution that will allow you to minimize your body’s reaction. Instead of reading, you could try one of these other activities that are less likely to aggravate car sickness:

  • Listening to Music - Choosing an activity that doesn’t involve using your vision is a good choice when traveling. In addition to mitigating your brain’s sense of motion discrepancies, music can help you to relax, which may reduce symptoms like headaches and nausea.
  • Listen to a Podcast or Radio Program - Music isn’t the only option for keeping occupied in the car. Maybe you can’t catch up on a new novel, but you can still listen to an interesting blogger or a comedy act.
  • Listen to an Audio Book - If you must read while traveling, consider bringing an audio book. You get the same content, but without the feeling that you shouldn’t have eaten breakfast before getting in the car.
  • Sleep - With your eyes closed, you don’t have the problem of your visual senses and your other senses disagreeing with each other. Especially if you’re taking a long trip, sleeping can be an effective way to relax and ease motion sickness.

What Else You Can Do about It

Have you noticed that you’re less likely to get car sickness when you’re the one driving? This may be because the driver can anticipate the movements that are coming up, such as turns and bumps in the road. Whether you’re driving or not, looking out the front window seems to help more than turning to look out side windows, possibly because when you look forward, you are looking in the same direction that your body is moving.

You can also try visualizing yourself driving if you are in the passenger seat or backseat. New research supports the ability to make a mind-body connection, that is, to control our body’s reactions through mental visualization. Every part of your body sends and receives brain signals. When you visualize your body functioning in a certain way, it sends the same signals to your mind as if you were actually doing it. In fact, several studies have found measurable muscle reactions to visualizing the exercise of a particular muscle. You may want to keep this in mind if you’ve already been reading in the car and start to feel symptoms coming on.

Visualization is pretty easy to do. Just relax and pretend that you have the wheel. Imagine yourself guiding the car around the turns. Predict which direction the car will be moving next. This helps your visual mind to make the right match with what your inner ear is telling it.

Another Possible Cause for Your Headache

Some of the symptoms listed above, particularly headache and dizziness, could be caused by eye strain rather than your brain’s attempt to make sense of disparate input. Eye strain occurs when the muscles in your eyes become fatigued. Like motion sickness, eye strain is a temporary condition. In addition to headaches or dizziness, eye strain may also cause:

  • Dry eyes
  • Blurry vision
  • Eye spasms (twitches)
  • Back, neck, and shoulder pain

These symptoms can usually be relieved by resting your eyes. In addition, you can prevent eye strain from occurring by recognizing the circumstances that are likely to cause the condition:

  • Exposure to Bright Light or Glare - Unlike reading inside a building, reading in a vehicle is more likely to expose you to bright sunlight (unless the windows are tinted). Also, the movement of the vehicle makes it likely that the sun will glare off the road, road signs, or other vehicles. When you are exposed to bright light or glare, you are more likely to squint while reading in order to block the excessive light. Struggling to focus through the shifting light patterns increases your chances of experiencing eye strain.
  • Digital Screens — Looking at a digital screen for too long can cause digital eye strain even if you’re not traveling. In general, smart phones, tablets, e-readers, and computers make your eyes work harder to focus. A few causes are glare or light being emitted from the screen, pixelated text that fatigues your eye muscles faster, or overly small text. Back, neck, and shoulder pain may also be more likely in a car because you must hold up the device or prop it up in an uncomfortable position.
  • Reading Print — Even reading a traditional printed book, magazine, or brochure can put strain on your eyes, especially when traveling. The motion of the car, train, or plane causes the text subtly to shake (or not so subtly in the case of a bumpy ride) while you’re reading. When you read in a stationary place, on the other hand, you’re more likely to keep your reading material steady. The constant, small motions of text in a vehicle make your eyes work even harder to focus.

Whether your symptoms are a result of eye strain or car sickness, you can decrease your discomfort by putting down your reading material while you’re traveling. If you’re prone to headaches, nausea, or other symptoms while riding in a car, it’s best to take preventive measures and plan for another way to pass your time. Just remember that when symptoms do arise, they are only temporary.

Stay Alive Don't Novel or Kindle and Drive


Related Articles:

References:
scientificamerican.com
nytimes.com
distraction.gov

Are you able to read in car? Do your eyes hurt afterwards? Add a comment and share your thoughts below.


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Comments

I read in the car

As a kid I read in the car any chance I had. My parents did not mind because it shut me up most likely. Anyway I still have great vision 30+ years later, no prescription needed. I wonder if having a smartphone instead would have made some sort of difference? Kids these days.

What kind of idiot reads while driving

Some of these people are complete idiots for reading while driving. Then again it does take some skill to do that and not kill people. Crazyness!